I woke up extra early so I would have plenty of time to apply make up and do my hair. Prior to the interview I had asked the Mercy Corps PR Guru in Portland about whether or not there would be hair and make-up stuff so that after I took off my headscarf I could do something with my fly away hair. NBC got a good chuckle out of that question. It appears that Ned Colt, the correspondent who interviewed me does not travel with a make-up bag or even a comb. I was surprised because NBC is the big leagues and when I had interned with Channel 2 in Reno, the male anchors carried bigger make-up bags than the women.
I wrote back defending myself with the excuse that if my hair looked like crap it would be the only thing my mother would comment on. Self-preservation. (Love you Mom!)
I spent an hour doing my hair and make-up, ate breakfast with Paul and Agron, who runs the IMC show in Baghdad and then our ride arrived. We headed downstairs and geared up in our 40 lbs. flak jackets and headed for the center for autism. On the way there we took an unexpected detour, because the road that we had planned to take was closed off – an IED had exploded. IED is an improvised explosive device not to be confused with an RIED a remote improvised explosive device and a million other acronyms for explosive devices, Andy the head of PEAK could rattle ‘em off, like the ABC’s but I couldn’t keep track of them all.
I was worried that we would be late and I wouldn’t have time to fix my hair and make-up or take off my Abaya, but the NBC crew ran into the same issue. We arrived at the center for autism and quickly moved from the car to the center and out of the street. We had exactly two hours to get the meeting done, the filming done and the interview done. The longer you stay in one place the more of a target you become.
My understanding is that there are three zones in Baghdad, the green zone that is also the IZ zone, the amber zone and the red zone. The green zone had recently been under mortar fire so we didn’t stay there. When I arrived at the center, the IADO contingency from Kurdistan was there, along with Moaffak head of IADO and several members from IADO who are in Baghdad including a sign language interpreter. There was a brief reception with refreshments, my good friend Rana, who is part of IADO’s management committee tried to feed me chocolate cake, but I didn’t want to be filmed with a giant piece of chocolate in my teeth so I politely declined. While we were in the office talking, NBC arrived and set up. I was meeting with women who have disabilities, to hear their stories, gain context and find out what their needs are. There were 13 women with all sorts of disabilities.
A young woman with Polio told about how she couldn’t finish school, because she was unwelcome there. As she talked about being rejected by her peers, tears rolled down her cheeks. She talked about the lack of services and equipment and snapped the broken hand rim on her wheelchair to underscore her point.
She is currently a beautician and we joked about how I could have used her help.
All of the women had incredible stories and had been through so much. Several of them had been injured by coalition forces. A young fifteen-year old girl had been sitting next to her father when mortar fire from the coalition forces blew him away and decimated her arm. She has had numerous surgeries, but it still hangs like a doll’s arm at her side. As she told her story her body shook and her eyes darted around as if being out in the open was dangerous. As she recounted what happened to her and remember in vivid detail the loss of here father tears streamed down her cheeks. She told us that her family couldn’t afford the rest of the surgeries that she needs. But her physical disability was the least of it; she had been truly traumatized by the experience.
Their stories reflected the issues that people with disabilities (PWDs) face all over the world, isolation, lack of infrastructure to support them, inaccessibility even to education, and discrimination based on their disability. In the Arab world, particularly among the uneducated, PWDs are viewed as cursed by God. As if they are being punished for something they or their families have done. This myth is predominately aimed at PWDs who are born with disabilities. I spoke with women who were blind, women who were deaf, amputees, women affected by polio, so far it seems that paralysis is less common in Iraq, but out of a population of 27.5 million it is estimated that 2 million are disabled and that probably doesn’t take into account the majority of mental disabilities, after the years of war I’m sure there is a huge number of people suffering from PSTD.
One of the most amazing things to me is that whenever the Iraqi National Staff refer to deaf people they refer to them as Deaf and Mute. And I keep telling them that just because you can’t hear doesn’t mean you can’t talk, but it doesn’t seem to be making a difference in their attitudes yet. They ask me questions like “How can they learn to speak, if they can’t hear.” Recently in selecting PWDs for a training that we are doing up North, one of my staff members, (we refer to them as focal points) selected two brothers who are deaf. I was looking for sign language interpreters and a focal point from another govt. asked me, “Do you really think we should include deaf people in the training?” “Why not?” I replied. “How can they advocate or fight for PWDs, when they can’t speak?” I said, “They can speak through an interpreter.” It was an amazing conversation for me, because I don’t really think of deaf people or even amputees as disabled. Yes they have disabilities, but in American society they integrate very well, particularly amputees.
What is notable about speaking with PWDs in Iraq is they always ask the question, “What can you do to help us?” And I always answer, “I’m going to help you learn how to help yourselves.” Minorities have to find their own voice no one can do it for them.
After hearing the women’s stories, the young kids at the autism center gave a performance, they sang the Iraqi National Anthem and gifts were presented by the Kurdistan Paralympic Committee and IADO the Iraqi Alliance of Disability Organizations that I helped create. While the performance was going on NBC was interviewing some of the women.
Then came my one on one with Ned. I told him that I was disappointed that he didn’t travel with a full hair and make-up entourage and we laughed about that, hell he didn’t even have a comb. He looked very tired. I can’t really remember what he asked me anymore, questions about why I did this type of work, what motivates me, do I think I can actually help PWDs in Iraq? And if I remember correctly the last question was, “Do you think what you are doing can make a difference for PWDs in Iraq?” “It’s not about whether or not I can make a difference it’s about them finding their voice and at the rate Iraq is going pretty soon there are going to be so many of us we are going to be able to take over,” I replied. Paul my country director said, “Cut that please.” And the cameraman I think his name was Steve burst out laughing. Other than that I think I did a pretty good job.
All in all we spent about two hours at the center. After the one on one interview I changed back into my Abaya, put on my headscarf, posed for a couple of pictures and then my fidgety security detail moved me out to the car. They don’t like to stay to long in one place and NBC had also come with security. Once in the car, they informed us that the area we were staying in was experiencing some gunfire so instead of going back to the IMC compound they were taking us to PEAK’s compound where we would hang out until it was safe to enter that part of the city again. We ended up being there all afternoon and just getting back to the IMC compound around 6:00 p.m.
Paul talked business with Andy the owner of PEAK and I relaxed on the couch. Because we were there so long PEAK even fed us. Andy ordered in chicken. All the men in the security detail were very respectful of me, including the Iraqis and I felt extremely safe the entire time I was there. On the day we arrived Alan had helped me suit up, not sure whether or not he is married or has kids, but he seemed to be more comfortable helping me get dressed in my flak jacket then Sean the next day. Sean had put my flak jacket on me and my scarf got caught and he had to pull it out. “This feels a bit awkward,” he commented. We both laughed.
It might seem strange to you that I felt safe surrounded by Iraqis with guns, but here is what I tell of my experience with the Iraqi people. I would say that 99% of Iraqis that I have met want peace. Although many express anger about the actions of the U.S. Army, how they have treated them, when you ask them if they want us to leave no one I have met says yes. The men that I work with are very protective of me as a woman and the women are lovely. Although the majority of Iraqi people are Muslim they don’t really talk about their faith at least not to me, but I can tell you that no Muslim as ever told me that I’m going to hell, on the other hand several Christians have. When I ask about wearing the Abaya and the headscarf the women I work with tell me that it is part of their faith and other women have said that the Abaya gives them status and respect. For me it’s not about whether or not they wear it, it’s about the choice of wearing it. On the other hand I’m not sure that fully veiled women should be allowed to drive, but maybe that’s because the only fully veiled women who I have seen behind the wheel are most likely Kuwaiti and Kuwaiti’s are the worst drivers in the world. From my experience and the statistics.
As for whether or not the U.S. should pull out of Iraq I think that should be up to the Iraqis. I feel like we have created a mess and now it is our responsibility to help clean it up.
I think what bothers me most about the Iraq/American relationship is that we keep or the media keeps a constant body count of the Americans who have died in Iraq, but where is the body count of the Iraqi’s who have died? Why isn’t that reported along with the American deaths? In 2008 alone, American will lose more people to intoxicated driving then they will probably ever lose in the occupation of Iraq, why aren’t Americans screaming about that? Why is it o.k. when Americans kill Americans senselessly, but not when Iraqi’s kill American’s senselessly?
After spending the afternoon lounging on the couch in the PEAK compound with Andy and Paul, I was returned safely to the IMC compound. I reported into Joy, our PR person in the states and let the gang in Kuwait know I was safe back in the compound. Ate dinner with the IMC gang and then watched a movie in the women’s side with Ana and Carrie. The movie was called gossip, but we sort of watched it, but we mainly talked. Ana had been in Baghdad about two months. Carrie was going on a year. We talked about work, personalities and the challenges we face. It was a fun, relaxing evening.
I was glad that I got to see Baghdad, I wish that Iraq was safe enough that I could work with my focal points on a daily basis and meet the people we work with, the groups and organizations, but its not, particularly in the South. The most difficult part of my job is the remote management. How do you motivate people when you aren’t there? It makes communication with the language barrier and the lack of face to face time difficult at best and sometimes impossible. It is an equation for misunderstandings and miscommunication. It also takes a lot longer to communicate. In addition, it is rare for an Iraqi to actually admit they don’t understand, I think that is part of the Arab culture, but a lot of times I think I have communicated something, but when the results come back it wasn’t what I communicated.
I hope to one day be able to communicate at least conversationally in Arabic.
1. Rana and I speaking with ladies. Rana is a member of the IADO Mangem
2. The Iraqi children singing the national anthem.
3. Guns on the table at the PEAK compound.
4. View from my window at IMC